Restoration at Belcourt

In recent years, my mom and I have made a tradition of visiting one of the Newport or Bristol mansions at Christmas to see their decorations. This year, we decided to visit the newly reopened Belcourt Castle, though it isn’t decorated for the holidays. Recently purchased by Carolyn Rafaelian of Alex and Ani, the house has opened for restoration tours. While we were there, people were working on different projects, and the house’s stables are now closed and used as a workshop space for the restoration efforts.

Oliver Belmont had Richard Morris Hunt, known for the Breakers and Biltmore among others, build Belcourt in 1891 as his summer bachelor pad. Hunt’s signature open spaces are particularly evident on the second floor where visitors can see into almost every room from the hallway. The house’s defining feature is its stables, and the ballroom that guests enter today to wait for tours was once the carriage room. All of the horses’ groomsmen were also given apartments in the home, but these rooms were all smaller than the horses’ quarters.

One of the first eye-catching points of the tour is the staircase, which was redone once Oliver was remarried to Alva Vanderbilt of women’s suffrage and Marble House fame. Steel supports were added to reinforce the structure, but some of the original wooden carvings have been transferred onto what we see today. Perhaps most notable about visiting Belcourt today is the conservation effort: suits of armor sit disassembled on tables, a single silk panel on the staircase shows what will soon cover the exposed brick and orange walls, the faux wood ceiling was repainted by hand in order to cover the flecks of paint that had fallen off, exposing a galaxy of white dots.

There are also touches of the modern owner today. In the great hall is an Alex and Ani flag next to the Belmont family coat of arms and a women’s suffrage flag. On the walls are Carolyn’s initials monogrammed among Belmont’s, and in a sitting room a bust of Carolyn, “visionary, entrepreneur, philanthropist.” I may have found some of these details to be a bit much, but I do think the visible, ongoing work in the house is unique. While other houses tell stories of conservation, Belcourt today shows it.

The second floor has a remarkable amount of work in plaster: scenes of the hunt over doorways, classical busts above mirrors which wowed the crowd, a fireplace which evoked Cinderella’s castle. As a result, Belmont’s bed, a hand-carved piece from India that took 25 years to create, stood in pleasant contrast to these other details.

Rough Point may still be my favorite Newport mansion to visit for its unique history and incredible guides, but Belcourt merits a visit for the ongoing stories it tells. Our guide was personable and informative, and the house is different in story and feel from its Bellevue neighbors.

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